Partners in fighting crime: Local police departments find their K-9 units prove indispensable

Like many dogs, Seekonk K-9 Mattis loves to run, play and chase a rubber ball.

But when he’s tasked with sniffing out evidence or finding a missing person, Mattis can be as tenacious as Jim Mattis, the Marine Corps general he was named after was on battlefields in the Middle East.

“I would say he’s fearless. He wants to please me. He’s very focused,” said Sgt. Adam Laprade, Mattis’s handler.

Seekonk Police Sgt. Adam Laprade says Mattis, a 3-year-old German shepherd K-9 officer, is as tenacious as Jim Mattis, the Marine Corps general after whom he was named, when tasked with sniffing out evidence or finding a missing person. “I would say he’s fearless,” Laprade says.

In February, Mattis helped track down a suspect in a break-in at Tony’s Seafood on Route 6, flushing him out of the woods a short distance away. The suspect was also wanted in Rhode Island on second-degree robbery charges.

Mattis, who just turned 3, is one of two German shepherd K-9s on the Seekonk police department. The other is Zuzo, who works with Sgt. Steve Fundakowski.

“They have a great temperament,” Laprade said. “They can turn it on and turn it off.”

On his first day of duty in September 2017, Zuzo found 15 grams of cocaine following a traffic stop. Two arrests were made.

“They love to work,” Laprade said of the canines, which are bred to be police dogs.

On March 23, Zuzo and Fundakowski found a 9mm semiautomatic handgun following a traffic stop on Interstate 195. The gun was allegedly stolen, and four Rhode Island men were arrested on weapons charges.

Police also found ski masks, gloves, a hammer and zip ties, and believe the bust may have thwarted a violent crime.

Currently, Seekonk and Foxboro are the only police departments in The Sun Chronicle area that have K-9 units, but Mansfield is gearing up to join the ranks. Area police departments without K-9s can rely on state police canines, county sheriff’s departments or units in regional police organizations.

There are an estimated 200 police dogs in the state that not only help local departments but have been called upon to assist agencies such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In Foxboro, K-9 Drax joined the police department in September, succeeding K-9 Marley, a Labrador who retired after working for about a decade with Sgt. John Chamberlin.

Drax, a 16-month-old German shepherd, works with Officer Kurt Pollister, who has been on the department for five years. The two went to a K-9 Academy in Bridgewater together.

“I’m just as new as the dog,” Pollister said.

Drax is certified in detecting missing persons and tracking criminals. But in the fall both he and Pollister will be heading back to the academy to get trained in narcotics detection.

The handlers say the dogs are a great supplement on the job because they can go where humans can’t. While the canines can’t get a confession out of a criminal suspect, they have a superior sense of smell and can detect a variety of narcotics hidden from plain view.

The canines also bolster officer safety because they can detect criminal suspects hiding out in buildings or behind doors.

The dogs cost about $7,000 or $8,000, not including equipment and training. Police departments pay for the K-9s through a variety of revenue sources, including grants, fundraisers and donations. They can work up to about 10 years.

Being a K-9 handler is a demanding job and requires many hours of training. They are often called out at all hours to track down suspects, missing people or for drug detection. And they often have to cancel plans with their families.

“You are always on,” Laprade said. “You need to constantly train. But it’s all worth it. All that training to those call outs. It’s all worth it to find the suspects and the narcotics.”

Handlers and their dogs train at the academy between 14 and 16 weeks at 40 hours a week to get certified in tracking and another six to 12 weeks for narcotics detection.

“I always loved dogs growing up. I always had an appreciation for them,” Fundakowski said. “Seeing what they did and what they can do on the street, it’s just something that drove me to it.”

The dogs live with their handlers in kennels but are not allowed to be too social with other people. In addition to the academy training, the handlers and the canines train at least 16 hours a month.

“I do something with him every day,” Fundakowski said. “It’s a lot of work but I truly enjoy it.”

His 5-year-old daughter named Zuzo after a character in the Disney Channel animated series “Elena of Avalor.”

Pollister, an 18-year Army Reserve officer, grew interested in dogs after watching them and their handlers in action during his three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite the long hours of training, Pollister said he loves being a K-9 handler and working with Drax. He said the handlers are a tight-knit community.

“If it were up to me,” Pollister said, “this is probably what I’ll do for the rest of my career.”

The police dogs are popular in the community and they and their handlers appear at school, civic and community events to put on demonstrations. Their contributions in finding drugs, guns and criminal suspects are shared widely on social media.

When Zuzo underwent emergency surgery for an infection last year, a police department Facebook post was shared by over 60 people and almost 800 clicked on it.

When the late Seekonk K-9 Kilo retired from duty in September 2017, a police dispatcher radioed his “last call,” as a police department would do for any officer who retires. He was sent off with a ceremony in front of the police station attended by officers from Somerset, Attleboro and East Providence as well as the Plymouth County Sheriff’s office.

Before Kilo passed away last year after serving the town for four years, he participated in dozens of drug seizures, sniffing out more than 100 grams of heroin and cocaine. He even helped apprehend a hit-and-run driver who fled an accident scene on Interstate 195 in 2015.

Prior to coming to Seekonk, Kilo worked with Laprade in Maryland, where his largest find was a kilo of cocaine.

In Seekonk, police have sold T-shirts to raise money for the K-9 program. Food is provided by Bay State Food Supply and veterinary care by the Dighton-Rehoboth Animal Hospital. The police department has also received random donations from citizens.

A Seekonk native, Leisa Silva, conducts a fundraising event every year in memory of her brother, Gilbert Ferreria, a retired Seekonk firefighter who died in 2014. The event raises thousands of dollars.

“These dogs are truly an asset to the town of Seekonk and surrounding communities. The dedication, the time and the money it takes and continues to take to train these dogs are a family effort,” she said.

“When Sgt. Laprade and Sgt. Fundakowski take their partners home at night they are treated like family. They are truly the best partner a police officer can have,” Silva said.

In Mansfield, Police Chief Ron Sellon said his department is applying for three grants and recently held a fundraiser with Massachusetts Vest-A-Dog that raised $15,000. Sellon said he is hoping to have a K-9 unit by September or October.

The dog will be trained to detect explosive ordnance and firearms and conduct search missions for missing persons, such as Alzheimer’s sufferers or special needs children.

“This is going to supplement our ability to track them significantly,” Sellon said.

Currently, Mansfield now relies on K-9 units from the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council, a regional law enforcement agency, and state police. With its own K-9 unit, Sellon said, the department will be able to improve response times, especially in the winter when “every minute counts.”

In addition to being called upon for school safety, the K-9 will help state police K-9s that work at the Xfinity Center, the chief said.

Funding sources for K-9 units include a Stanton Foundation grant, which provides $25,000 to $30,000 to cover the start-up costs for a community or to the costs of adding a second dog for departments.

Police departments have also obtained protective vests through Mansfield Vest-A-Dog in Walpole or Vested Interests in K9s. Both are all-volunteer, nonprofit organizations that have been helping provide K-9 dogs with ballistic vests, equipment and funding for training.

“If we can save the taxpayers and citizens any money through donations, that’s better,” Laprade said.

Also, state Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, and nine other legislators are backing a bill that would allow emergency medical service workers to treat police canines injured in the line of duty.

“As a firefighter and EMT, I know if I was on a call where a police dog was shot, damn right I would treat the dog and deal with the consequences later,” said Dooley, a Plainville firefighter and EMT.

Currently, first responders cannot help a police dog other than offering first aid. State law penalizes EMTs if they assist an animal in an emergency.

The bill comes after Nero, a Yarmouth Police K-9, was hospitalized for a week after he was shot in the face last April 12. The shooting occurred when his handler, Officer Sean Gannon, went to serve a warrant in Marstons Mills — Gannon was killed in the incident.

Local K-9 handlers are all for the proposed legislation.

“We’re trained to provide first aid to our dogs,” Fundakowski said. “God forbid something happens to them that is beyond our capability.”

Dooley said he is confident that the bill will be passed during the current legislative session and has yet to hear any objections.

“These dogs are risking their lives to protect us,” Dooley said. “The least we can do is take care of them if they are injured.”

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